Health Insurance, Poverty: Numbers of Poor, Uninsured Increase Census Figures Show

September 14, 2011 | Chicago Tribune |  Link to article

More than 46.2 million Americans live in poverty - the highest number in the 52 years for which such estimates have been published, according to census figures released Tuesday. From 2009 to 2010, the nation's poor increased by 2.6 million, and the number of those without health insurance grew by nearly 1 million people.

In Florida, 3.8 million people - more than one in five - were without health insurance last year. Nationwide, the number of uninsured was closer to one in six.
 Census officials attributed the increase in poverty to the high numbers of unemployed Americans.

"We do see that we had an increase in the numbers of people who did not work at all last year. That might be the single most important factor contributing to the poverty rate," said Trudi Renwick, chief of the Census Bureau's Poverty Statistics Branch.

The data released Tuesday were compiled from the 2011 Current Population Survey, a smaller sampling of Americans than the 2010 census.

Of those Americans not working, 28.5 percent were without health-care coverage - the same percentage as part-time workers. But even among those who worked full time, 15 percent were without insurance, the continuation of a trend that began a decade ago with rising insurance rates.

Since 2001, the number of Americans with employer-provided insurance has declined from 179.9 million to 169.2 million. In some cases, employers stopped offering such coverage. But there are also employees who decided they could no longer afford the premiums.

Kenmore Gill, a 35-year-old air-conditioning technician from Orlando, was one of them. Gill used to make enough money in the busy summer months to pay for health insurance for his family the rest of the year.

But recently business has been down so much, he said, he can't afford the $155 a week his premiums would cost.

"It's either pay the mortgage and put food on the table, or pay insurance," he said.

Gill, his wife and two sons stopped going to doctors, except for emergencies which they paid for out of pocket, until they found Grace Medical Home - a faith-based, primary-care practice that provides health care for low-income workers and the recently unemployed.

Grace Executive Director Stephanie Nelson Garris said the facility has seen the number of uninsured increase as Orlando's economy undergoes a slow-motion recovery. Grace, which opened in 2010, has a waiting list of 350 people.

"It's a two-fold issue," she said. "We have patients who work in the tourist industry who are seasonal or they don't work enough hours [to qualify for benefits], and we have patients whose employers have dropped health-care insurance because the costs are too high."

The recession and high unemployment also took a bite out of family income. Median family income in the United States dropped 2.3 percent from 2009 to $49,445. Since the recession began in 2007, median household income has declined by 6.4 percent.

"How many more have to fall into poverty before we say enough?" said Alan Houseman, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy. "Our nation's policymakers should acknowledge that increasing poverty is a national crisis instead of allowing it to be a moment in the 24-hour news cycle. And our lawmakers should address it with the same level of urgency, time and resources that they devoted to the extended debate over the debt ceiling."

The issues are likely to be a focal point in the discussion of President Barack Obama's proposed jobs package and expected haggling over the safety net of Medicare and Medicaid.

"What these numbers tell us is that one in five Floridians still lack health insurance - and that's a real problem," said Laura Goodhue, executive director of Florida CHAIN, a statewide consumer health-advocacy organization. "It means we can't afford cuts to Medicaid and Medicare, the programs that provide health care to Floridians when they need it most. A lot of us are only one job loss away."

Derek Chason, a 53-year-old software consultant and salesman from Orlando, is a case in point. Until June, he had a six-figure income and superior health insurance. Then he lost his paycheck and insurance policy when his firm laid him, along with half of its staff.

"After paying into unemployment since I was 16, I get a check for $275 a week - $1,100 a month to live, pay a mortgage and feed three kids," he said. "It's just not feasible to pay for [private] health insurance."

Previous health issues - Chason had a staph infection that required doctors to amputate one of his toes, and his wife had breast cancer - would make premiums too expensive for him to afford.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said the latest numbers show the federal Affordable Care Act is already helping. The only significant decrease in the number of uninsured, the Census Bureau reported, came among 18- to 24-year-olds, who now can stay insured under their parents' plan until age 26.

The percentage of young adults with insurance increased from 70.7 percent in 2009 to 72.8 percent in 2010, according to the report. "That translates into 500,000 more young people with insurance," Sebelius said in a statement. "We expect even more will gain coverage in 2011 when the policy is fully phased in."

Other aspects of health-care reform that should eventually reduce the number of uninsured, Goodhue said, include tax credits for small businesses and low- and middle-income families, consumer protections that preclude insurers from denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions and a more competitive insurance marketplace.

For now, though, the number of uninsured remains divided by ethnicity and geography. Nationwide, 30.7 percent of Hispanics lack health insurance, 20.8 percent of blacks, 18.1 percent of Asians and 11.7 of whites. The South leads all regions with 19.1 percent of its residents uninsured.

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